This is a sermon that I wrote and preached in October 2021 on the theme of service. The reading for this sermon was: Mark 10:35-45.
What is the best thing you’ve ever won? That thing that you are really proud of, and probably talk about any chance you get. For me, it was the South Central Orienteering League, back when I was in the W12 class – so I was 12 years old, and I won the league, beating another girl who always beat me – she’s actually now a World champion so I don’t feel so bad, but it was really annoying at the time, and I beat her in this league. The reason that I beat her was because I went to more events than her… but I was still very proud of myself, and I still am.
Most of us, I’m sure, enjoy winning. We like to be the best at something. Whether it’s orienteering, or baking, or knitting. And to become the best, usually we have to work for it – we have to train, practice, put work in to climb to the top.
But James and John also wanted to win. They wanted to be with Jesus, at his right and left in glory. And they figured they would just ask for it, ask Jesus for this favour to take them straight to the top.
And to me, this feels a pretty bold favour to ask. But Jesus doesn’t respond with annoyance or exasperation like we might be tempted to. He shows a lot of grace for the disciples. First, he asks whether they can drink the cup he drinks and be baptised like him, meaning whether they can follow in his footsteps in terms of the suffering he is to endure – which I still don’t think they are understanding based on how quickly they say that they can.
Then, when they are undeterred, he explains that it is God who chooses those places. But this isn’t the end of it, because now the rest of the disciples have got wind of James and John’s question – and are indignant – maybe like we would be if we saw someone else trying to take a short cut to the top. And it’s at this point that Jesus does seem to have had enough and decides that the disciples need a bit of a talking to.
But his route to winning those positions in glory, also isn’t what we might expect. Jesus doesn’t tell them to be the cleverest or the strongest, or even give them a long list of things they need to do to take those positions. But what Jesus calls them to do looks different:
He says: “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant”.
He’s saying: if you want to sit with me in glory, you don’t get there by asking me; by calling in favours and special privileges, or even by completing a series of specific tasks. You become great through your service to other people.
And as he’s talking here, Jesus highlights two important things about what that service should look like.
Firstly, our service is not about power. Jesus makes the distinction clearly, that in the world, the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them and exercise their authority and he says that we should be different. And you can see this in the world today, people are less likely to serve those who are poorer than them, or lower in society, because they can’t give anything in return. Instead, people will lord their authority over those below them, and prefer to serve those above them in order to gain power.
For example, think about when someone important comes to visit you? How do you prepare? At our previous church, the then Bishop of the Diocese was coming to our church for a service. And the church pulled out all the stops in getting ready – there were several parking spaces reserved for him and his staff, every part of the church building had been cleaned and was immaculate, the fancy tablecloths and nice mugs were out, there were people prepped ready to help and guide the Bishop to where he needed to be, and they had probably got the very best biscuits out and ready.
And none of this was because the bishop had asked for it. But something about this important, “higher up” person coming to visit, persuaded people to serve him in ways that they wouldn’t usually serve. Because they didn’t go to all that effort every Sunday, or even every time someone new came to the church.
But as I said, Jesus calls us to be different. Instead of following this worldly pattern, he says: “whoever wants to be first must be slave of all”. Not slave of the rich and the powerful. Not slave of the kind and deserving. But slave of all – called to serve everyone.
Because whilst we might be happy to put in all that effort for a visit from the bishop, are we willing to put that effort into serving someone who’s just wondered in off the street?
And the other thing that Jesus highlights about our service is that service is one way in which we become more like Jesus.
1 John 2:5-6 says:
“But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.”
As Christians, we are called to follow Jesus’ example in how we live, with the Holy Spirit working in our lives to transform us to be more like him. And in our reading today, Jesus highlighted an important part of who he is. Verse 45 says: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Jesus didn’t come to this world to gain anything for himself. He gave himself fully and selflessly to service. To serve us as he died for our sins and defeated death. Something we had done nothing to earn or deserve.
So, if we are to become more like him – we must also not serve others to gain something from them but give ourselves selflessly to serve other people.
Think about why you come to church, this morning and every week. Do you primarily expect to be served, or to serve other people? Are you willing to take on any job that needs doing, or just those that you enjoy doing? Are you willing to sacrifice in order to serve, whether missing some of the service to get teas and coffees ready, or waking up a bit earlier in order to get everything set up, or dedicating time in your week to prepare?
What would it have looked like if Jesus turned up to a church just like this, how would he be serving?
So, what does your service look like? Do you treat it like a list of to-dos, or a route to the top? Is it reserved for the important and the wealthy and those we love? Or, are you servant of all? Does your service follow Jesus’ example: not seeking to be served yourself, but giving yourself freely for those around you?
Dear God, thank you for the example that you set for us for how we can serve others. Thank you that you came to earth, not to be served, but to serve us – giving yourself to save us. Help us to serve like you served, seeing the needs around us and giving ourselves selflessly and unbiasedly. Show us where we have opportunities to serve, and help us to be obedient to where you lead us. Amen.